Thumbsucking: Conscious Parenting and Respecting Children’s Instincts

Thumbsucking: Conscious Parenting and Respecting Children's Instincts

Thumbsucking was allowed by her mother, who gave her the room to trust her own instincts, needs, and bodily integrity. She will respect that and pass the legacy along to her young son if he has the thumbsucking need.

By Courtney Cable

In my youth, and even in my not-so-youth, solace and comfort were never more than an arm’s-length away. Literally. I was a thumbsucker, through and through, addicted to the inner calm that washed over me whenever I put my thumb in my mouth. My mother tells me that I picked up the habit midway to my third birthday. Newly self-weaned and in imitation of a favorite cousin, I put my thumb in my mouth and left it comfortably there for the next ten years, more-or-less.

My thumbsucking habit was always accompanied by a blanket with a silky edge, perfect for rubbing between the thumb and index finger of the non-sucking hand. Until recently, my blankie rested in a box in my basement, white shreds of fabric held together with nothing more than knots, but in its day it followed me everywhere, my constant companion. As I uncovered it in a recent bout of sorting and purging, I was surprised by how much comfort I still got from holding it. The association between this soft fabric and safety and security was so strong that even after twenty years it still had a calming effect on me.

I’m aware of the controversy around thumbsucking. Parents are embarrassed when their children do it, telling their little ones that it’s only something that “babies” do, even though many healthy and well-adjusted children do it well into the preschool years. We’ve all heard horrible stories of the thumbsucking child who grows up to have buck teeth that require thousands upon thousands of dollars to correct, even though there are also those, like myself, who have experienced no ill effects or permanent physical damage at all. Even so, it’s really no great surprise that it’s a habit that parents generally frown upon and actively discourage.

Perceptive in the way that most children are, I was not blind to the negative social opinion of my chosen form of self-soothing. An introvert and painfully shy to begin with, my heart melted down past my belly and slipped into the soles of my shoes when uncles, in town for annual visits, rudely grabbed my elbow and pulled. “What flavor is it today?” they’d ask, “chocolate?” A question with innocent intent I’m sure, but an affront when you’re little and scared of the unfamiliar adult faces all around you. No one seemed to understand that, for me, thumbsucking was a necessity and asking me to stop sucking my thumb was akin to asking me to stop breathing. No one understood, that is, except for my mother.

The toddler years went by without much incident, but eventually the day came when I was to start school. Maybe thumbsucking was okay in the privacy of one’s home, but surely I would quit before that first day, right? My habit showed no sign of abating and the day came for Kindergarten roundup. My mother and I entered the school cafeteria. I was handed a picture of a bear to color while she talked with the teachers about the upcoming school year. I climbed onto my seat and addressed the project in front of me, carefully filling in the figure with strokes of brown. I didn’t know what the adults were talking about at the time; when they finished I gathered my drawing and we left. Recently, when going through a box of old school mementos, I came across the paperwork that my mother filled out that day. “This child sucks her thumb,” she wrote in the “is there anything else you’d like us to know?” section, “This is NOT to be discouraged!” The weight of those words settled down upon me as I held that paper in my hand. My mother had publicly defended my right to bodily autonomy.

Years passed and eventually, I grew tired of the familial teasing and had a desire to fit the social norm. I tried several times to kick the habit, asking my mom for assistance and in this too she was supportive. At my request, she painted the toxic-tasting goo on my thumbs before bedtime, but my need was so great that I’d stomach the toxic flavor until it was all sucked away and I could continue to thumbsuck in peace. I declared that I would give it up cold turkey, but mom thought that to be excessive. Lying in bed, gripping my teddy bear as hard as I could to keep my thumbs south of my face, I looked up to see mom walk into my room carrying my blanket. “I think it would be okay, just at nighttime. Don’t you?” Relief.

A mother now myself, I feel the weight of making the “right” choices when trying to guide my son. Just as so many parents before us, my husband and I have felt the sting of judgment and condescension of our parenting choices. It can be an isolating thing to experience and I wonder at the thoughts that went through my mother’s head as she guarded her little girl against society’s push.

Silas, my son, has picked up the habit of rubbing a silky-edged blanket when he nurses. It started because we have such a blanket on our bed and, by chance, his tiny hand came to rest upon its coolness one day. It didn’t take long for him to associate the feel of that cloth with the calm relaxation of nursing. He was delighted when I pulled out a small pink blanket with a satin edge (the “back-up” blanket from when I was little) so that he would have something to hold no matter where we nursed. I don’t know if thumbsucking is soon to follow, but I do know that I will vehemently defend him if it does. The gentle way that my mother approached my own thumb habit helped me to feel safe and comfortable in my skin. The way that she publicly defended my right to suck my thumb allowed me the room to trust my own instincts. She believed that my body was my own and she respected my right to do with it what I wished. I can’t imagine a better legacy to pass along to my son.

Courtney Cable is a wife, mother, and homemaker who is attempting to carve out a gentle, creative, and sustainable life on the flat plains of Iowa. She holds an MA in Intermedia Art and her writing has also been published in Kindred, Rhythm of the Home, and Bamboo Family Magazine. This article was first published in Natural Child Magazine. Courtney chronicles her days spent with her young son on her blog, A Life Sustained.